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Spoken World Series: Local Kids and L.A. Poets Hit a Verbal Home Run

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Literary Issue: April 2016
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Spoken World SeriesThe pen may be mightier than the sword, but in spoken word it’s a talented tongue that counts. “Spoken word is a form of storytelling,” says local poet Tomas Stanton, host of the annual Spoken World Series at Mesa Arts Center. “The only real difference is that stories can be longer form, and spoken word has the potential for group pieces.”

Spoken word has evolved over the decades, from the finger-snapping beat poets of the '60s (think Mike Myers’ witty wordplay in So I Married an Axe Murderer) to the hip-hop “urban poetry” of Mos Def’s early 2000s TV series, Def Poetry Jam. Technically there aren’t any rules – any poetry read aloud can be considered spoken word. What sets it apart from the dry, dusty verses of Yeats or Emily Dickinson is the performance aspect.

For the past six years, Stanton has introduced middle and high school kids to live poetry via his Phonetic Spit program, an annual series of workshops and residencies designed to help young talent develop a personal voice. “Spoken word is a performance-based art form, but we really drive home the literary aspect,” Stanton says. The focus is placed on writing and revision, not how fast or eloquently a teen can spit rhymes.

Like their adult counterparts, Phonetic Spit kids get just three minutes and 30 seconds to spin their tales; any time over and the performer gets a penalty. Competitors are scored by local judges, American Idol style – thankfully minus the dreaded “X” buzzers. “There are always nerves,” says Stanton. “But we tell the kids that no matter what happens or where they place, it’s important to support fellow artists.”

This Friday night, Stanton’s students will compete head-to-head in a battle for the top 8 slots in the 2016 All-City Slam Championship, taking place from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Saturday at Mesa Arts Center. The two-day poetry event also includes the third and final installment of this year’s Spoken World Series, at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 15 in Mesa Arts Center’s Piper Theater. The professionally produced evening includes performances from TEDx speaker Alyesha Wise and Los Angeles slam team coach Matthew Hernandez, with guest host Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Tickets are $11 (Saturday championship is free).

If you go:
Mesa Arts Center
1 E. Main St., Mesa
480-644-6500, mesaartscenter.com